A wall of TVs playing various sports channels dominates a section of the media room at the Vikings’ headquarters in Eagan. Upon arrival there around 9:20 Wednesday morning, both ESPN and NFL Network were playing on separate TVs. Both had talking head discussion shows on — and in both cases, they were talking about Kirk Cousins and the Vikings’ offense.
Not in a good way, of course.
This was a little more than 12 hours after Cousins had apologized to Adam Thielen on a podcast, which was a couple days after Thielen had expressed frustration (in general terms, he later said) about the Vikings’ passing offense in a 16-6 loss to the Bears.
And Wednesday marked two weeks since Cousins had said this a few days after a disappointing loss at Green Bay: “Believe me, I’m not going to be playing quarterback here much longer if I go out and play the way I did this past Sunday. I understand that, and I’ve got to go out and play at a much higher level.”
Given he arguably played worse against Chicago, and with that quote as a jumping off point, let’s examine this question: What exactly would it take for the Vikings to bench Cousins?
It’s a popular thing for fans to wonder about, particularly when postgame emotions are running hot.
I don’t ponder that question lightly, but I don’t think we’re necessarily close to a point where the Vikings should consider it — the reason I ultimately decided not to broach the subject with Vikings coach Mike Zimmer on Wednesday.
But maybe weighing all the factors will provide some clarity on just where the Vikings and Cousins are. Here are some of the key ingredients that have led teams to make mid-year quarterback switches in the past (in cases where it was pertinent, I tried to find quarterbacks of similar pedigree and salary to Cousins):
*Injuries are the most obvious one — like when Sam Bradford swooped when Teddy Bridgewater was hurt in 2016 or Case Keenum took over for Bradford in 2017.
But that’s not a factor here. Cousins is healthy, and in fact his durability (no missed starts since the beginning of 2015) is one of his main selling points.
*A veteran is supplanted by a high-profile rookie. Example: Daniel Jones, who the Vikings will face Sunday in New York, taking over for Eli Manning after the Giants started 0-2.
The Vikings, though, have no such prospects. They kept Sean Mannion as their backup over Kyle Sloter. Mannion isn’t ancient (27), but he was drafted in 2015. He’s not a prospect they are itching to see in a game. Practice squad QB Jake Browning is a longer-term project.
*A team doesn’t really have a true No. 1 guy and shuffles between two different quarterbacks. See any number of Vikings teams from the mid-1980s through present — most notably the Tommy Kramer vs. Wade Wilson era.
That’s obviously not the case with the current Vikings. Cousins, by virtue of his track record and $84 million guaranteed contract, has been the clear No. 1 starter from Day 1.
*A team is at the end of a lost-cause season and is looking for at least a temporary change. Good example: The Bears benched Jay Cutler near the end of a poor 2014 season in favor of Jimmy Clausen (a fifth-year veteran at the time). Cutler had a much higher salary and pedigree, but still he was benched.
But the comparison to Minnesota’s situation falls short here because Cutler was in his sixth year of a rocky Bears tenure and they were 5-9 with no playoff prospects. The Vikings right now are 2-2 in Cousins’ second season. While Cousins’ poor play contributed two losses, there’s plenty of season left and time to get this right. As Mike Zimmer is fond of pointing out (and did again Wednesday), the 2017 Vikings started 2-2 and finished 13-3.
*Along the lines of being patient, Dolphins fans were clamoring for Ryan Tannehill to get benched early in 2016 after a 1-4 start in favor of Matt Moore. Tannehill was the eighth-highest paid QB in the league at the time, and Moore was a viable backup with 25 career starts up to that point.
Then-coach Adam Gase said when asked about it: “No. He’s not coming out. You can ask me 100 times, he’s going to be in there the rest of the season.”
Even with a stronger backup than the Vikings have and a much worse start than the Vikings have had this season, the Dolphins stayed the course.
Tannehill played much better after that, going 7-1 in his next eight starts before a knee injury knocked him out for the season. Moore played down the stretch, went 2-1, and Miami made the playoffs.
Long story short: History suggests things would have to get a lot worse for the Vikings to make a move. There’s a lot at stake still, and their backup (Mannion) is neither very experienced (53 career passes in five seasons) nor a prospect they want to get a look at for the future. The Vikings have virtually no cap space even if they did want to add another viable QB to the mix.
Maybe I could see Cousins getting a half or quarter of a game on the bench sometime fairly soon if he’s struggling in a blowout loss. But for the foreseeable future, for better or worse, apologies or not, this is his team.